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Chris Mooney - Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief
Posted: 25 May 2011 05:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 91 ]
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I have experienced many pastors who were glad to introduce me to scholars on the historical Jesus and to accept my position of the Bible being mostly allegorical. But, they certainly were not trying to steer me toward a greater belief in science. I’m pretty sure I am on the far liberal end of Christianity, and although my pastors may support “The Clergy Letter Project”, an acknowledgment of science and encouragement of it being taught, I can’t imagine them consciously encouraging people to become less faithful.

I have also corresponded with Matt Dilahunty from the ACA and found his confrontational style very off putting. It took some more rational discussion like the guys at Reasonable Doubts to help complete my de-conversion.

Of the two, the liberal pastors are far worse. They were more intent on keeping me as a church member than helping me discover any truth, one way or another. Although Matt often acted like a total jerk with me, he was at least consistent and honest. It is harder to judge how honest those pastors were.

I agree in part with Chris, but he did not present much of a plan. I don’t know what he has in mind when he talks about people of faith helping people understand scientific methodology. I have experienced much discussion about approaching Genesis as allegorical, but that is an extremely small step. Learning about book burnings and the Inquisition had much more to do with my de-converting than seeing Jesus as a piece of good mythology. The biggest problem is that accepting Jesus as your savior defines Christianity. I know a pastor who is willing to perform a homosexual union ceremony, against the rules of church, but he has no plans to give up belief in the resurrection.

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Posted: 25 May 2011 07:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 92 ]
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I saw Dawkins’ “Root of All Evil?” film.  The first part was reasonable enough.  But that second part… man-o-man did he go off the deep end.  I think it was telling.  He finds an old Hasidic Jew, and another young Jew who turned Muslim and moved to the Mid-East where he hates the Jews… Dawkins takes these two extremists and other extremists painting them as though they represent the norm in religion and so we should all be suspicious, fearsome, and defensive against them.  It was ridiculous, and I think that it was telling about Dawkins.

“The Ancestor’s Tale”, good work Dawkins.  A bit dry reading, but that was due to the material, not the writing, fascinating though.

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Posted: 30 May 2011 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 93 ]
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jump_in_the_pit - 25 May 2011 07:43 PM

I saw Dawkins’ “Root of All Evil?” film.  The first part was reasonable enough.  But that second part… man-o-man did he go off the deep end.  I think it was telling.  He finds an old Hasidic Jew, and another young Jew who turned Muslim and moved to the Mid-East where he hates the Jews… Dawkins takes these two extremists and other extremists painting them as though they represent the norm in religion and so we should all be suspicious, fearsome, and defensive against them.  It was ridiculous, and I think that it was telling about Dawkins.

“The Ancestor’s Tale”, good work Dawkins.  A bit dry reading, but that was due to the material, not the writing, fascinating though.

Then obviously if the religious extremists don’t matter, then the middle east is a bastion of peace then? Good one.

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Posted: 02 June 2011 05:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 94 ]
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I had a quite different reaction to Dawkins’ “Root of all Evil?”.  I found it very compelling and entirely reasonable.  One thing he pointed out was that he objected to that title for the film and insisted on at least putting in the ? mark at the end, since he doesn’t believe that anything is the root of all evil.  IMHO, that is a perfectly reasonable attitude.  As far as painting all religionists with the brush of the worst fanatics, that’s simply not what he is doing.  He is merely pointing out in an uncompromising manner and with irrefutable examples,  the historically rather obvious truth that religion is the root of a lot of evil and that overall, it has done more to retard than to promote human progress. 

People accuse Dawkins of being harsh, shrill, and fanatical in his beliefs, but the fact that these criticisms arise at all given what he is actually saying just underlines his point that it is time to break through the paradigm that religious belief is somehow in a privileged position and that criticism of religious belief is somehow hate speech.  The Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch trials, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, suicide bombers, the murder of that Dutch film maker for producing the short video “Submission”.... those manifestations of religious belief are harsh, shrill, fanatical… not Dawkins.  I’m reminded of a slogan I came across on FFRF.org’s “Out of the Closet” web pages:

“Militant Muslims blow up cars and commit acts of terrorism.
Militant Christians blow up abortion clinics and gun down abortion doctors.
Militant Atheists might just hurt your feelings.”
  -Jay Holland

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Posted: 04 June 2011 04:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 95 ]
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lumberjohn - 16 May 2011 11:17 AM

This idea that the stance of the New Atheists “won’t change believers’ minds” really is the problem here, since that is what those who criticize their approach always seem to fall back on.  There is ample evidence just on Richard Dawkins’ website that this isn’t true.  Clearly, such arguments do change some believers’ minds, so they do advance the ball.  That is real evidence of actual numbers of people persuaded by the confrontational approach.

What do we have on the other side of the coin?  What evidence is there that such an approach moves the ball backwards?  All Moony can provide is research showing that, in general, people that believe something strongly often become defensive when that belief is subjected to a frontal assault.  Even if we were to grant that such research can be applied to religious belief, which I think is a reasonable though not necessary assumption, that only means that a confrontationist approach is likely to cause someone who is already a believer, and probably not likely to change their mind anyway, to become less likely to change their mind during the course of the argument.  It says nothing about what the long term effects of such confrontation would be.  For instance, the religious person might, after having his belief effectively attacked several times, go in search of confirmatory evidence and find that it doesn’t exist —thereby leading him away from religion. 

But the more important point is that such research says nothing at all about how a confrontational approach would shift the balance between believers and non-believers, which is the real question and one on which the New Atheists can and do provide such evidence.  I would like to hear from someone who actually supports Mooney’s position on this issue.

Good points.  Chris should read Dan Barker’s “Godless”  In it, he talks about gradually over several years, throwing out the “bathwater” of his beliefs until he found there was no “baby” to be found.  His honest search for confirmation of his beliefs in the bible, did, in the end, lead him to the conclusion that it was all BS.

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Homeopaths don’t have brains, just skull water with the memory of brains - Robin Ince of The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast
The phrase “False Prophet” is redundant.  Cleanliness is next to… nothing.
I don’t have a God-shaped hole in my soul.  You have a Reason-shaped hole in your head!

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Posted: 04 June 2011 04:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 96 ]
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I attended the Oakland RAM last month, and met such a guy. He was a fundie baptist who started dating a mormon. He was trying to convince her of the error of her ways, and she was trying to defend her beliefs. He did research for confirmation and ammunition and began his journey to disbelief, and his girlfriend studied her religion more closely and discovered it was hogwash. They are now married, and have been atheists for about 6 months.

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Posted: 05 June 2011 07:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 97 ]
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Trying to stick somewhat to the topic of accomodationists…
I watched “Root of All Evil?”, thanks for the link. It was a decent introduction, but did not really draw a line through history showing any particular roots. From the people interviewed, you could make some inferences, but a lot of room for questioning was left open. He could easily have covered more about book burning or the specifics of how Francis Bacon or Baruch Spinoza were treated, or just the university system in general. If this were presented in a balanced manner, such as also showing the early science that came out of Baghdad during the height of the Islamic empire, it might find more acceptance and wider viewing.

Studying the history of where one’s religion came from, in American’s cases how it was tamed and semi-secularized or for the fundamentalists how it was encouraged, is step one. Step two is a harder look at just what one is getting out of the experience. Studying the Bible is the quickest way to atheism. Then examining that whole “I just do it for the community thing.” The community and the charity, IMO, are fine, but are you gathering and giving out of fear or even because it has some magic power?

I don’t think Dawkins has examined religion in this way. I’m not familiar enough with Mooney to say.

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Posted: 05 June 2011 04:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 98 ]
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asanta - 04 June 2011 04:28 PM

I attended the Oakland RAM last month, and met such a guy. He was a fundie baptist who started dating a mormon. He was trying to convince her of the error of her ways, and she was trying to defend her beliefs. He did research for confirmation and ammunition and began his journey to disbelief, and his girlfriend studied her religion more closely and discovered it was hogwash. They are now married, and have been atheists for about 6 months.

Asanta that is one interesting story!

As I listened to the podcast I was reminded of the guy
Robert Cialdini and the science of persuasion

Cialdini had 6 Rules of persuasion which he summarized in a Scientific American article some years ago. (in the Wikipedia link above) Some of them apply here.
(2) Consistency. Although Lindsay talks about making people ashamed,  a softer version of this is “consistency”—showing a scientist he is inconsistent to be superstitious.
(3)-(4) Social Proof and Authority. Here Lindsay and Mooney actually agree.  If more atheists come out (or whatever you call it), especially folks who are highly respected, it would be persuasive, and if people they know are atheists it makes a differnce.
(5) Liking—I’m not an accomodationist but Mooney scores on this one—someone is more willing to listen to you if they like you. Telling people who stayed up late waiting for the rapture that they are morons is sort of hoping this “liking” stuff doesn’t matter.
and then MAYBE
(6) Scarcity—I would say that there is common ground between atheists and “religionists” if they agree it is important to care about people, and atheists can possibly emphasize that they REALLY care since they don’t think people get a second chance in heaven. But probably doesn’t apply.

Asanta’s example suggests the rule (1) reciprocity—these two people treated each other with respect and somehow worked it out.  Still a VERY strange story!

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Posted: 05 June 2011 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 99 ]
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Yes, it was strange that a baptist fundie and mormon started dating in the first place. If I remember correctly, the common denominator was college. Their respective families still wallow in their respective beliefs, leaving the couple feeling very isolated. They came to the RAM to find new friends.

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Posted: 18 June 2011 06:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 100 ]
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Wow.  Great work by the guest host.  If this was a debate (which I think is a fair characterization), then he basically ate Chris Mooney’s lunch.

Mooney’s own words seemed to prove his own point, albeit not in the way I’m sure he’d like to have.  While Lindsay was calm and supremely unemotional, Mooney really seemed to be very defensive when his positions were challenged.  I can’t think of a better example of someone digging in their heels, when a pre-existing belief is challenged.

Mooney’s logical arguments were really very flimsy.  He kept asserting very strongly that there was evidence that attacking peoples’ beliefs would not yield results for atheists.  However, when pressed about this supposed evidence, Mooney repeatedly conceded that it would be hard to conduct an experiment to ever provide such evidence.  But yet, even after this concession, he then resorted back to claiming that there was evidence to support his very firmly-held belief that confrontation wouldn’t work.  Lindsay would offer arguments like “isn’t it possible that this other approach could work”, while Mooney’s statements always took the form of certainty about what would or wouldn’t work.  This absolute certitude without evidence is the hallmark of religious people, as I’m sure Mooney knows.

I agree with Mooney that psychology plays a huge role here.  He seems to have taken some legitimate findings to an absurd extreme though.  He seems to think that it’s always the case (or maybe only mostly the case) that if a belief is strongly held, then people’s beliefs will always be strengthened by evidence to the contrary.  If that were really the case, after millions of years on Earth, the only strongly-held beliefs people would still have would be all ones that are diametrically opposite of the truth.  Not only would that be a bizarre outcome, but it would actually be the death of any species.  In control systems (engineering), this phenomenon is referred to as “positive feedback”.  This would be like a swing that’s forced further in the direction it’s traveling at all times, rather than the force of gravity always pulling a swing back to the center (vertical).  Positive feedback leads to unstable systems, which in the case of beliefs would mean that people’s beliefs would just spiral into more and more nonsense (if Mooney was correct).  As it turns out, despite the persistence of religion, mankind really is getting more knowledgeable with time.  Just not as quickly as some atheists would prefer smile

The other psychological issue is about personality differences.  For the sake of argument, let’s group people into Liberals and Conservatives.  Some recent US studies have shown that aside from policy issues, liberals tend to have personalities that view compromise as a positive, while conservatives view compromise as weakness (and by large margins).  This is how you get a country that’s almost evenly divided clearly shifting to the right on policy issues.  Liberals keep making outrageous concessions to conservative policy demands.  If Senate Democrats have 59 votes, they claim they don’t have the votes, and won’t even pursue an issue.  If the Republicans have 30 votes, they think, “we only need 10 more votes, and the issue is ours.  let’s go for it!”.  As Mooney himself has said, atheism does correlate well with liberalism, and I believe Mooney, and the majority of US atheists who are also accomodationalist, are merely being undermined by their own personalities.  Giving in to nonsensical religiousness amongst scientists (for example) just feels right to left-leaning atheists, who strive for consensus, not conflict.  But, all one needs to do is look at the results in our Congress recently to realize that this liberal/conservative difference should not be construed as evidence that the normally conservative strategy of confrontation isn’t effective.  Confrontationalism is effective!

If you want another example of confrontationalism working, take smoking in the US.  It’s gotten to the point where smokers really are treated as second-class citizens, and smoking has been on the decline.  Health experts haven’t been sugar-coating the dangers for decades.  There’s nothing accomodationalist about anti-smoking campaigns in this country.  Is this the same as religion?  No, but to a smoker, smoking is a pretty core part of their life.  And in addition to the psychological barrier of not wanting to think that they’ve wasted huge amounts of time and money doing something that’s killing them, there’s actually a chemical addiction barrier to overcome, too.  So, don’t despair, New Atheists!

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Posted: 13 September 2011 03:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 101 ]
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(After falling behind on PoI, I’m catching up and just listened to this interview.)

A key issue this interview raised for me is that we skeptics (and atheists, freethinkers, etc.) can point to embarrassingly little solid research about What Works.  For instance, though I’m sympathetic to some of Mooney’s arguments, when pressed he had difficulty citing specific research to support his views that certain strategies are better than others for changing religious beliefs.  Maybe relevant extant research wasn’t cited, but I’d be surprised if Mooney weren’t aware of it, given his experience with this topic.

Why do so many skeptics—who are allegedly fans of science and empirical evidence—seem to be content relying on anecdotes and loose speculation about how to allocate our limited resources toward spreading our worldview?

More specifically, I’d like to see the skeptical community put more resources toward supporting research on how best to achieve some of its main objectives.  How much time, money, or other resources does CfI spend engaging with researchers in relevant disciplines to encourage studies about, say, how to effectively persuade certain segments of believers to try some version of atheism—or at least to improve their motivation and ability to think critically?  Would such research really be as prohibitively difficult as Mooney seemed to suggest?  Granted, an ideal study on a certain topic might require inordinate resources, but some well-designed preliminary studies on carefully chosen topics might be much more feasible and better than what limited evidence we have.

During any given week tens of thousands of academic researchers (e.g., faculty members, post-docs, grad and undergrad students) in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, communication science, marketing, and other pertinent disciplines are conducting studies.  These studies vary hugely in their content, scope, budget, and other aspects, from small unfunded projects by undergrads for course requirements to federally funded grants with multi-million-dollar budgets that span several years (or a couple decades).  Surely some of these investigators—especially those who study closely related topics—could be convinced to do at least small-scale pilot studies to empirically inform some of our debates about effective (or harmful) strategies for promoting skepticism.  Preliminary findings from these studies could then be used to design and attract funding for larger, more ambitious programs of research.

Is this sort of engagement between the skeptical community and researchers already happening?  If not, why not?  How hard would this be, really?  I don’t know, but I suspect that starting it would be fairly easy: Find relevant research, contact the authors to gauge their interest in studying skeptical topics in their areas of expertise, and discuss with the interested ones what kind of external support might help them.  The early stages of this already happen, such as with guest researchers on PoI and other podcasts, but mostly the skeptics seem to play a passive role, as spectators.  CfI or other groups might be able to foster the later, more active stages by serving as a clearinghouse to connect these research partners with potential sources of support, such as grant dollars, research expertise, material for experimental manipulations (e.g., readings or videos), media coverage of findings, and meetings/conferences with fellow researchers.  For example, as a statistical consultant I’d consider markedly reducing or even waiving my consulting fees for clients who are working on such research and need help design studies or analyzing data, and I suspect other skeptics with relevant expertise might offer technical or substantive assistance.

Personally, I’d be much more generous with donations to CfI or similar skeptical organizations if I knew that part of my contributions went toward generating compelling empirical evidence about how to effectively promote skepticism, a naturalistic worldview, and the like.  If anyone out there is already doing this sort of thing, I’d love to know about it.

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Posted: 02 December 2011 02:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 102 ]
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Best. Interview. Ever.
Mooney is a very sloppy thinker and gets frustrated and angry when questioned by someone who doesn’t just accept his assertions of fact as true.  I don’t know Lindsay’s background, but he would have made a fantastic trial lawyer.

Edit:
From Ronald A. Lindsay’s bio: “For many years he practiced law in Washington, DC, and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses.”

And THAT is why you do your research before opening up your big mouth.

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I would like to thank everyone at CFI for their hard work and all the forum participants for their thoughtfulness and good manners.

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Posted: 02 December 2011 03:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 103 ]
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asanta - 05 June 2011 05:09 PM

Yes, it was strange that a baptist fundie and mormon started dating in the first place. If I remember correctly, the common denominator was college. Their respective families still wallow in their respective beliefs, leaving the couple feeling very isolated. They came to the RAM to find new friends.

Love conquers all…... smile

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Posted: 02 December 2011 03:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 104 ]
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The old adage “speak softly and carry a big stick” is still valid.  When presenting a believer with skeptical observations about beliefs and statements of proven facts, it is best to do so from a position of respect, else it is not the facts that speak loudest but the shrillness of the voice and that justifiably elicits a defensive posture of rejection, rather than a calm look at what is being said.

Modification and ultimate rejection of long held beliefs is a gradual process, i.e. gradualism.

[ Edited: 02 December 2011 03:35 AM by Write4U ]
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